The Ethics of Ambiguity

by

Simone De Beauvoir

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Existentialism Term Analysis

A loose term for the ideas of a group of philosophers, artists, and writers who think about morality and action from the perspective of the human individual living in a concrete world, rather than in abstract terms dealing with hypothetical human nature, and who generally put individual authenticity and freedom at the forefront of their thought. While various philosophers are included and excluded under the label “existentialism,” most narrowly it refers to a set of French philosophers in the 1940s and 1950s, including Jean-Paul Sartre (with whom it is most strongly associated), Simone de Beauvoir, and others like Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This group also took heavily after the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who rejected the label existentialism, and in turn after earlier thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. When de Beauvoir talks about existentialism, however, she is specifically talking about Sartre’s philosophy, as developed in his central work, Being and Nothingness.

Existentialism Quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity

The The Ethics of Ambiguity quotes below are all either spoken by Existentialism or refer to Existentialism. For each quote, you can also see the other terms and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Citadel edition of The Ethics of Ambiguity published in 1948.
Part 1 Quotes

Since we do not succeed in fleeing it, let us therefore try to look the truth in the face. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity. It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reason for acting.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

For existentialism, it is not impersonal universal man who is the source of values, but the plurality of concrete, particular men projecting themselves toward their ends on the basis of situations whose particularity is as radical and as irreducible as subjectivity itself. How could men, originally separated, get together?

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Hegel, Kant
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

We think that the meaning of the situation does not impose itself on the consciousness of a passive subject, that it surges up only by the disclosure which a free subject effects in his project.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Marx
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

Not only do we assert that the existentialist doctrine permits the elaboration of an ethics, but it even appears to us as the only philosophy in which an ethics has its place. For, in a metaphysics of transcendence, in the classical sense of the term, evil is reduced to error; and in humanistic philosophies it is impossible to account for it, man being defined as complete in a complete world. Existentialism alone gives—like religions—a real role to evil, and it is this, perhaps, which make its judgments so gloomy.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2 Quotes

It is obvious that this choice is very close to a genuinely moral attitude. The adventurer does not propose to be; he deliberately makes himself a lack of being; he aims expressly at existence; though engaged in his undertaking, he is at the same time detached from the goal. Whether he succeeds or fails, he goes right ahead throwing himself into a new enterprise to which he will give himself with the same indifferent ardor. It is not from things that he expects the justification of his choices. Considering such behavior at the moment of its subjectivity, we see that it conforms to the requirements of ethics, and if existentialism were solipsistic, as is generally claimed, it would have to regard the adventurer as its perfect hero.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Adventurer
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:
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Existentialism Term Timeline in The Ethics of Ambiguity

The timeline below shows where the term Existentialism appears in The Ethics of Ambiguity. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: Ambiguity and Freedom
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
This ambiguity is central to all existentialism, which gets attacked for giving people no principles on the basis of which to live.... (full context)
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Many people accuse existentialism of making morality meaningless and subjective—but it is a universal, objective truth that everyone is... (full context)
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De Beauvoir notes that Marxism shares existentialism’s “notion of situation” and the “recognition of separation which it implies.” Marxism is founded on... (full context)
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De Beauvoir reminds the reader that existentialists “believe in freedom” and wonders whether this freedom means that people are “prohibited from wishing... (full context)
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Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
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Like Kant, de Beauvoir thinks that people cannot positively decide not to be free. However, existentialists “do not see man as being essentially a positive will,” but rather as foundationally negative,... (full context)
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This might help explain why people think of existentialism as “gloomy”: there are real ethical consequences to people’s will; people can win and lose;... (full context)
Part 2: Personal Freedom and Others
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...at existence,” having a clear goal but not being too seriously attached to it. “If existentialism were solipsistic,” like its critics insist, then it would love the adventurer. However, the adventurer... (full context)
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Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
This “open future” shows why existentialism is not solipsistic: pursuing one’s own freedom requires engaging others’ freedom too. In fact, existentialism... (full context)
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This also addresses the other main criticism of existentialism: that it cannot tell people how to engage their freedom. Clearly, people must do this... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 4: The Present and the Future
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Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...are working in the service of History, they do not justify their individual acts, whereas existentialists must constantly justify their individual acts, which the future will not justify for them. Both... (full context)
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Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...She still has to show why action is not “criminal and absurd,” especially since the existentialists are “condemning man to action.” (full context)
Conclusion
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
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...itself finite, since any individual’s work must be limited. This is probably why people see existentialism as gloomy—they are used to ethics being considered from a comfortingly inhuman perspective: “the plane... (full context)
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Existentialism, on the other hand, refuses to evade the truth of people’s finiteness in life but... (full context)